Since paratransit buses, commonly known as minibuses, are exempt from Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, the state of Florida has turned to the academic world to ensure the vehicles' safety.
The Florida Department of Transportation works closely with Jerry Wekezer, a civil engineering professor at the Florida A&M University-Florida State University College of Engineering, to test the crashworthiness of the vehicles, Science Daily reported.
"Every year, the Florida Department of Transportation buys over 300 paratransit buses, which then are distributed to local agencies throughout the state," Wekezer told Science Daily. "Because there are no federal safety standards for these vehicles, the state seeks to do everything it can to make sure they're safe before putting them on the road."
Wekezer has developed a crashworthiness and impact analysis laboratory that performs studies and lab tests on individual vehicle components to learn how they stand up to various types of dynamic impact. His seven-member team also develops complex computer models to determine crashworthiness.
"It would be very expensive to obtain actual paratransit buses for crashworthiness and rollover testing --- a single bus can cost more than $60,000," Wekezer told Science Daily. "So what we have done with this lab is develop methods for testing specific components, such as side panels and connections, to determine how they respond to loads that simulate a side-impact collision. The data collected from these tests then are applied to validate finite element models used for a comprehensive crashworthiness and safety assessment of these buses."
In finite element modeling, a computational process develops a three-dimensional object. This allows researchers to make very specific predictions on how the vehicle will respond to a variety of impact conditions. In the case of paratransit buses, the model can be divided into more than a half-million individual pieces or elements.